Developed by Tecom Systems in Melbourne, Tecom’s Challenger security management panel is an institution across Australia and New Zealand, handling intrusion alarms and access control at around 150,000 sites. Over decades Challenger has built a reputation for stubborn reliability. It’s a reputation that has maintained this access control and intrusion alarm panel’s solid standing through multiple changes in corporate ownership and a resulting slow rate of upgrade.
But while Version 8 of the Challenger panel was a tough monkey, the passage of time had made it limiting for larger modern applications. Challenger v8 also used programming language that had become outdated and difficult to tune on the fly. All this said, it’s a testament to the longevity of the design that Challenger v8 is not being retired but now slots in underneath Challenger10, integrating with it seamlessly through the same management software solutions.
The soon to be released Tecom Challenger10 is all new, designed in Australia and built using the latest processors, SMD technology, and programming language to international standards. It’s not only powerful but designed to retain all Challenger v8’s capabilities requested by installers over many years, while also facilitating ongoing improvements over the course of a long life. Important too, it’s not just a single product from the point of view of Interlogix, but a platform designed to be endlessly developed, a first step in a powerful new direction.
I think it’s an understatement to say that we’ve all been looking forward to seeing Tecom Challenger10 for a long time and so it was with a degree of real excitement that I drove down to the DAS office at Riverwood in Sydney to talk with the manufacturer and distributors about the new system. You don’t get to see a local security system of serious importance released every day.
Process of development
This new product was developed by UTC’s Interlogix but in a key move, the engineers decided to give the product back its original identity by adding Tecom to the name. That’s not the only thing that’s original about the system. Former Tecom Systems’ MD Dean Reilly has had a significant influence on the team and his input into this new system has been instrumental.
When I arrive at DAS my reception committee consists of Interlogix’s Martin Dillon and DAS’ George Salman and Troy Payne. Sitting on the table of the training room is a flat blue and white cardboard box with the word ‘Tecom’ across the top. The boys are all excited and rather than the usual 5 minutes of chat we take no time whatsoever in getting down to the business at hand.
There it is, I say, waving at the box. It’s been a long time coming but it’s bloody good to see Tecom Challenger10! While the market has been waiting for this upgrade a while, how long was the actual development process?
“About 15 months from start to finish so pretty rapid, considering we had a locked-down design,” Martin Dillon tells me. “There have been few hardware changes – we strengthened the USB port – since October, though the new firmware is continually evolving.
“We made some big decisions last year in relation to what we were doing with the product. We set a firm date for release and we are on schedule – the product is in manufacture now. It’s been a little while coming but now it’s here.”
Dean Reilly was involved with this project wasn’t he? There was a lot of buzz in the industry when he signed on.
“Yes, Dean now works with us and has since April last year,” says Dillon. “He’s the lead guy on the development. I think Dean has the unique capability of building solutions for customers. There’s a lot of Dean Reilly in that design.”
According to Dillon, the engineering team designed Challenger10 as a future platform.
“The non-negotiables were firstly that it had to be a Challenger so all those installers out there who know how a Challenger works could install and commission it – we wanted to preserve that skill-set. And secondly, Challenger10 had to be entirely backwards compatible,” Dillon explains.
“That’s right,” adds George Salman. “And given it was backwards compatible the other thing we wanted to ensure from the perspective of installers was that they could take the screws off the Challenger v8 and then install the Challenger 10 in the same screw holes with the same screws, with all the connectors in exactly the same places.”
“Yes – we really made a big point of incorporating those mechanical similarities. It means all the existing cabling can be used with no patches or messing about for the technicians,” he explains.
“This made the panel much harder to build, I think. If you give engineers a blank sheet of paper off they’ll go but if you ask them to build a product that’s open to development yet can support multiple layers of functionality from another product, then that’s a lot harder and imposes challenges and constraints.
“The non-negotiables were firstly that it had to be a Challenger so all those installers out there who know how a Challenger works could install and commission it – we wanted to preserve that skill-set. And secondly, Challenger10 had to be entirely backwards compatible”
“You are building a totally new product that still has to communicate with this other stuff that was built with a totally different design philosophy. But we think this is really important,” Dillon says.
“We have good customers out there who have a lot of money invested in our product and we want to help them protect their investment. We don’t want to say to a customer – want to upgrade? Ask your boss for a pile of money because the existing system will have to be ripped out.
“And what’s really important for multi-site customers is that this system design allows them to mix and match. If they’ve got 100 Challenger v8s and only 10 sites needing the upgraded features of Challenger10, we can just upgrade those 10 sites and they can keep the Challenger v8s.”
Dillon says at all times the engineers and the rest of the team were intensely conscious the panel had to be a Challenger and to leverage that existing skill set.
“I know with some products training is a big commitment – if an integrator has to train 20 guys for 3 days – that’s a big ask,” he says.
“And then you have a barrier. Installers may not do the course, may not understand the product and then it begins to impact their installations – a system may not function as well as it could function and this impacts on its reputation.
“But that is not an issue with Challenger10. We did training in Melbourne as part of our beta program – we got a bunch of installers in and put them through the bridging training. To be honest the biggest challenge was getting feedback from them because they were so confident with it – they did not need to ring us for help – it was plug-and-play.”
According to Dillon, Challenger V8 will remain as part of the product suite.
“Challenger10 has IP onboard and scalability but if you only want 16 inputs and a dialler then we don’t want to force the customer to pay for something they don’t need,” he explains. “The Challenger v8 will be retained for use in smaller applications.”
Also important to point out is here is that Challenger10 has been built with plenty of room to grow and expand in all directions – including firmware.
“We talked about the future a lot during the development process and we have a full roadmap of product that’s going to follow it,” Dillon says.
“We are aware that there are going to be changes with comms in the future – the power of the Internet. Products these days are aligning with IT standards. These allow your solution to evolve with technology shifts and individual pieces of functionality. That’s a non negotiable for us.”
According to Troy Payne, this takes integrators along for the ride.
“There are some top notch integrators out there that are up on technology but the majority are scared. They are not overly confident. If you take those guys along for the ride with network-capable systems, then you are educating the industry as well.”
Fundamentals of the board
So – what are the basics of the Challenger10? From an alarm input capability Challenger10 is 4 times larger than Challenger v8. From an output capability, it’s double the size and its access control capability has also doubled. That means 1008 inputs, 512 outputs, 96 doors or intelligent lifts, and 99 areas up from 16 as well as 32 RASs. There are 2000 cardholders native in the panel and there are 10,000 offline events – that’s a lot of events if comms paths are down.
This panel operates completely standalone, as the old one does and you can still program the system from a keypad, same as the old one. There’s also a secondary comms bus and there are 3 expansion slots on board. There’s also Ethernet on the board, there’s a USB connection for an installer’s tool like Titan and there’s an SD card slot for backing the panel’s database up for yourself or for the customers.
Basically what this means is that if you need to change out a panel you can copy the database to a card, pull the board, put in a new one, put in the card, go to the RAS and load the database and you are going again.
“Clearly it’s state-of-the-art technology,” says Dillon. “We worked very closely with the chipset manufacturers to make sure we have the best solution. We’ve also put a lot of effort into upgrading our manufacturing process and you can see that in the quality of the board.
“You can see all the tiny solder points on the back of the board,” he explains, handing me the board. “There are about 800 connectors there and there’s an automated tester that checks every component on the board in circuit during manufacture to ensure it’s the correct value.
“Boards then go through an optical verification that can read board values and check whether the correct IC has been installed in the right location and orientation when that’s finished we run a functional test on the board and then upload the firmware into the board through a single test process and all our boards in the future will follow the same path.
“We are very pleased with the outcome – manufacturing these days is very automated and that means there’s less chance of reliability issues. We met international testing standards put boards in ovens and freezers, and TEM cells, it’s not what you have to do but we built Challenger10 as a platform for moving forward. And if in 5 years there’s an amazing new processor available we will modify the design of the board and just drop it in.”
It’s nicely done, I say, turning the board over in my hands. Considered in the light of other board work I see this new Tecom panel is a study in modern SMD. There’s nothing rough about this product whatever. And that row of ports – RJ-45, SD and USB – keeps drawing my eye. The Challenger v8 board is also on the table in front of me and it’s simply a different animal.
It’s robust and functional and history has showed it to be very reliable and it will still be available for those who choose to install it, but it’s not in the same league as Challenger10. Peering at the top of the new board there are whole suburbs of components that my 46-year-old eyes cannot see and compared to days of yore, even the processors are tiny.
“Challenger10 is 4 times larger than Challenger v8. From an output capability, it’s double the size and its access control capability has also doubled. That means 1008 inputs, 512 outputs, 96 doors or intelligent lifts, and 99 areas up from 16 as well as 32 RASs”
“Looking at that board and remembering the manufacturing that was done when I was at Tecom Systems years ago I was thinking there are hardly any components on the older boards when you consider their contribution to functionality,” Salman observes.
“The modern boards are so different, the technology is just incredible. It’s more than 10x times the processing power of the board it replaces. It’s 2013 technology but it’s not going to be obsolete in 2015 – it will be current because it’s designed to allow us to keep it current and to keep expanding it – there’s heaps of grunt in Challenger10.”
Something else that’s clear as we play with the hardware is that the case has lashings of shoulder room in it. That means there will be no problems shoe-horning DGP expanders, 8-input expanders, batteries and door controllers aboard. And there’s room for easy of cabling all around the panel.
“One of the key things of this panel’s functionality is that we can run 10 concurrent communications paths,” Dillon says. “This means Challenger10 can talk to management software in a control room, multiple control rooms, multiple management software packages. Consultants have really latched on to this capability. Some sites want a system that can communicate not redundantly to multiple sites but concurrently.”
According to DAS’ product manager – integrated access, Troy Payne, in the past to handle maintenance or expand the system you would have to take the main management software offline.
“Now because you have the 10 communication paths what you can do is still have your panel connected live in real time to the management software as well as having the technician online making changes and doing tests. And you can configure the comms paths anyway you want to – it’s very powerful,” Payne says.
“And as Martin mentioned earlier, you can also have v8’s and Challenger 10s running on the same management system with the same look and feel,” he says.
“This means that for end users and technicians there’s very little retraining required. The installers bridging course is short – it runs for a full day but we have had guys get through it in 3 hours.”
From the point of view of the old system and the new, what was the motivating factor for its development, what fundamental characteristic did the old system lack the new system offers? I ask.
“Scale is one thing – which we have addressed – that was not particularly difficult for us to deal with but I think as much as anything it was moving to a modern platform,” Dillon tells me.
“We needed a new platform with plenty of headroom in it – again, this is a beginning, not the end of the product’s development. It’s like these expansion slots – we are still working on exactly what they are going to be. They’ll be communication modules, they’ll be lighting modules driven by firmware which takes the risk of software away from the system and increases simplicity.”
According to Payne something that’s very important when considering future expandability is that Challenger10 has fundamentally moved forward in its core capabilities.
“Consider that where the Challenger v8 uses an 8-bit processor, the Challenger10 uses a 32-bit processor, which gives you code expansion and it just increases the possibilities moving forward,” Payne explains.
“With the new Challenger10, it makes it easier for engineers to make those changes. The old Challenger v8 is not as flexible, so Challenger10 is designed in a much newer language.”
What about the management system? I ask.
“We are doing a lot of work on software,” Dillon says. “We have increased our software team 3 or 4-fold. We have about 15 people working on management software. This will talk to all legacy systems including Titan and then Forcefield and Security Commander. We are doing a lot of work on those platforms to bring them forward as well. Titan is being released now.
“There’s been a lot of work done on Titan to make it compatible with Challenger10 so as to handle all the functionality but retain the look and feel you get with v8 so these can be managed together as a single system,” Payne explains.
“All the expanded functionality of the new system is available in our software platforms and it’s available in a familiar way. Installers and end users will be instantly familiar with managing the new system.”
Process of upgrade
Pretty obviously, given the enormous installed base in the market, one of the most common applications is going to be upgrades and that means the process of upgrade needs to be simple. According to Dillon, a lot of work went into ensuring the process was intuitive and not surprisingly, a lot of work on the beta test sides related to confirming this simplicity.
“We did a lot of beta testing in a lot of large sites” Dillon says. “The installer comes along and plugs into the upload pins of the Challenger v8 with a special cable the way they always would and then uploads the database out of the panel, turns off the Challenger V8 then pulls the plugs and terminations off and removes the board.
“They then click a radial button in Titan to change the uploaded database across to Challenger10 – there’s a conversion application in the Titan software – this migrates the Challenger v8 database to a Challenger 10 database in a couple of minutes.
“Next, installers replace the Challenger v8 panel with a Challenger10 panel, then they re-install the terminations and plugs in exactly the same places, power the board up and then just push the database down into the Challenger 10 panel through the onboard USB port. Finally, they go to the RAS and turn the system on and it works. That simplicity is really the key to this.”
According to Dillon, one of the beta sites was a large installation with hundreds of inputs and he says the installation team was in and out in about one hour and ten minutes.
“And this is deliberate. We really want to give our customers a migration path with us. They can keep their RAS, keep their door controllers and hardware and there’s very minimal retraining.”
Something else that was important to get right was the power supply. It’s a fundamental thing but reliable power means a reliable system – it’s the lifeblood of the entire solution.
“This new power supply is second to none,” says Payne. “I know everything has a power supply and it’s not flashy to talk about it but this power supply is so smart it can detect limitation of the input current and if it sees the voltage decrease too fast or too far it will shut the board down bar the dialler and dial out and report a power fail.
“Not only that you have individually thermally-fused outputs on everything so when they are pushed over-current they will cut and not cut back in until the problem is rectified. Once the problem is sorted, the thermal fuse will cut back in and everything’s normal again. So there are no glass fuses, no replacing fuses, there are really no spare parts to it.”
Supporting these physical capabilities, there’s powerful firmware functionality for monitoring power condition that’s accessible via the keypad.
“Built into the Challenger10 firmware you have an intelligent power supply checker so you can check voltages, draw, battery amperage and draw. That diagnostic alone is a huge tool for installers. It can also allow installers to compare diagnostic signatures so as to identify developing problems. It might be cable degradation that will eventually cause faults. Once the problem has been sorted the installer hits refresh on the keypad and the system updates the status.”
According to Payne, Challenger10 is designed this way so that if there is a problem on the board – say some one has cut a cable in the field and caused a short circuit on the board somewhere, the system will start shutting the board down in a way that protects the board and retains comms.
“The system will shut down inputs and outputs, whatever it needs to do and it communicates these actions through to management software,” says Payne. “The ultimate task of a security panel is to notify someone that there is an event – so it does the right thing and keeps its comms paths open to notify operators or management that there is an issue before closing down.”
It’s an understatement to point out that design and engineering team at Interlogix and the distributors at Direct Alarm Supplies are thrilled to bits with the new system. It’s rare to find senior management letting real feeling creep into their voices but there’s no lack of feeling here.
“Our guys nationally are just pumped – they’ve been waiting for this for quite some time and so has our customer base – there’s huge anticipation for this release,” says Salman. “We are already talking about the release – it’s exciting and it generates a lot of additional activity. We are so excited, we really are. The scope for us to retrofit is brilliant.”
It’s the same for Troy Payne.
“This is without a doubt the biggest product release within DAS in the 11 years that I have been with the company,” he says. “I am literally bouncing off walls every day. I just can’t wait for this product to come out. The excitement in the voices of the long term integrated access sales reps within DAS when we talk about this product is ridiculous.”
“And we feel the same at Interlogix,” says Dillon. “I’ve been in the industry a long time and I said to our engineering team that this is a once-in-a-career opportunity. It’s not just about this piece of hardware either but what is happening with the whole Challenger portfolio – what is going to unfold over the coming years. This is the launchpad. We’re all excited about it.”
As we’ve been chatting, Hills Industries Security Group general manager, Rob Meachem has walked into the room and like the rest of the team he’s eager to get the Challenger10 into the field.
“Yes, we’ve all been waiting a while and it’s going to be awesome, it really is,” Meachem says. “What’s great with Challenger10 is that everything we have talked about over the years is there – the backwards compatibility, the same board layout, and that’s really important. You can come up with all these brilliant new features but if you don’t make the installers lives easy then you are in serious trouble.
“How do you get a future-proof platform without taking away the key functionality of the past? That’s why I think there was a huge sigh of relief when we saw Challenger10. It was what we needed. It’s powerful and expandable and future-proof and installers will not have to re-cable, they will not have to change the box, they do not need to do huge training, they can just get stuck into it. And if you look at the greatest product success stories, these are the things that are so important.”
Features of the Challenger10 include:
* 99 Areas
* 255 area groups
* 16 inputs onboard (1008 system inputs)
* 96 doors of Access control or lift control
* Onboard SD card, Ethernet, USB RS-232, Dialler
* 2000 users
* Stores 10,000 events
* Programmable via LCD keypad of management software
* Automated arming and disarming time and day
* Simultaneously communicate with up to 10 monitoring stations and software packages
* Multiple holiday types over multiple days repeating annually
* Intelligent onboard power supply checked on keypad
* Multiple internal areas linked to a perimeter area
* Simplified cabling to avoid earth wires
* Auto resettable fuse protection
* Flash upgradeable firmware.
“Our guys nationally are just pumped – they’ve been waiting for this for quite some time and so has our customer base – there’s huge anticipation for this release”